A new app that lets certain smartphone and tablet owners send pressure measurements to scientists may eventually help predict storms, such as the blizzard expected to hit the U.S. Northeast tomorrow (Jan. 8). The app, called PressureNet, takes advantage of the latest sensor to show up in smart devices.
Some of the newest Samsung and Motorola devices now take atmospheric pressure measurements to determine elevation, in an effort to more precisely track location. At the same time, the pressure in an area can inform meteorologists about what's happening with the air masses in that location and help them forecast storms that will arrive over the next few hours. Atmospheric scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle are trying to develop a way to use these device-gathered measurements for short-term storm forecasts.
It will take a few months of research before the scientists will be able to test whether their method works. If it does, smartphone and tablet owners could help the U.S. National Weather Service collect far more data than are now available from federally managed weather stations.
"We could potentially have tens or hundreds of thousands of additional surface pressure observations, which could significantly improve short-term weather forecasts," Cliff Mass, who is leading the weather-predicting effort, said in a statement.
The UW team is now gathering about 4,000 data points an hour.
PressureNet is available for the Samsung Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note and Galaxy Nexus smartphones; the Samsung Nexus 10 tablet and the Motorola Xoom tablet. Previous versions of the app have been around since 2011, but its developers at the Canada-based Cumulonimbus just updated it in January so that users may share their data anonymously with Mass and his colleagues.
Most PressureNet users live in the Northeast and in major cities across the U.S. Mass is hoping far more people will download PressureNet, especially in the Midwest, which is prone to quickly forming, super-local summer thunderstorms. "Thunderstorms are one of the areas of weakest skill for forecasting," he said. "I think thunderstorms in the middle part of the country could potentially be the biggest positive for this approach."
He put out a call for more PressureNet downloads on his blog, writing, "To make this the revolutionary effort it could be, we need many more observations — like 100x more."
Mass and his colleagues hope to compare their smartphone- and tablet-aided forecasts to traditional predictions this summer. The team previously found that pressure measurements from hobbyists improve on forecasts made with just U.S. weather-station data.